Julie Zickefoose lives for the moment when a wild, free living bird that she has raised or rehabilitated comes back to visit her; their eyes meet and they share a spark of understanding. Her reward for the grueling work of rescuing birds—such as feeding baby hummingbirds every twenty minutes all day long—is her empathy with them and the satisfaction of knowing the world is a birdier and more beautiful place.The Bluebird Effect is about the change that's set in motion by one single act, such as saving an injured bluebird—or a hummingbird, swift, or phoebe. Each of the twenty five chapters covers a different species, and many depict an individual bird, each with its own personality, habits, and quirks. And each chapter is illustrated with Zickefoose's stunning watercolor paintings and drawings. Not just individual tales about the trials and triumphs of raising birds, The Bluebird Effect mixes humor, natural history, and memoir to give readers an intimate story of a life lived among wild birds.
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This book is organized by species, as the author describes her experiences with bird rehabilitation or conservation. It’s richly illustrated with her beautiful watercolors and pencil sketches of birds. I liked it that it’s focused on ordinary birds, many of which I know and often see myself. Mostly, it’s a very pleasant book, although chapters on sandhill cranes and mourning doves do talk about the fact that these birds are considered game species in many U.S. states – something I found as shocking as the author, when she had first learned about it. She also riles against cat owners who let their pets go outside where they kill birds and small mammals, but I thought she was rather inconsistent on this issue, since she writes that she lets her dog hunt chipmunks on her 80-acres property and “hosts several large rat snakes in their garage all summer, where they help control the white-footed mouse population” – even though she admits that these snakes are not at all averse to diversifying their diet with bird eggs and nestlings. Also, while she’s understandably against crane and dove hunting, she writes that she accepts gifts of venison from her “hunter friends” and sounds glad that squirrels are rare where she lives, since her neighbors in Appalachian Ohio shoot and eat them. Interestingly, she expresses concern that feeding wild birds may cause their numbers to increase beyond reasonable, citing a time when she counted seventy cardinals in her backyard after a heavy snowstorm. However, since it was usually more like seven, it seems that on that particular day the cardinals from a very wide area flew in, as they were searching desperately for something to eat. So I don’t understand her equanimity about a hawk who, instead of migrating with the rest of his species, had settled in her backyard for the winter, specializing on eating male cardinals. I think allowing a raptor to move into one’s backyard out of season and make a living catching the birds one attracts with feeders is no different from allowing a cat – or a snake – to do the same. Still, for the most part, it is a pleasant book. My favorite story was about chimney swift nestlings whom the author raised and later released in a nearby town, “full of old buildings and uncapped brick chimneys, and situated on the confluence of two rivers, with associated hordes of aquatic insects overhead.” As the human-grown birds took flight, “a squadron of wild swifts came down to meet and flank each flier…. The wild swifts made them welcome, swooping down as a body to fly alongside them.” As I read this, I thought how uncommon such behavior is in people.The chapter tied with that one as my most favorite was about starlings. Julie Zickefoose recalls seeing a starling in town, who kept flying from a wire overhead to a spot in the middle of a traffic intersection, where lay the remains of another starling: “It can only be a starling’s mate. An hour later, I see the bird, still sitting on the wire, still watching what is now just a paste of feathers, unrecognizable to any but its mate.” She also writes about Mozart’s pet starling “that could whistle parts of his concertos, with its own improvisations and additions. When it died, three years later, he held a funeral, with invited guests in full mourning dress.” When the author had raised and released a starling, it tapped on her window the next day with a nickel in its beak, which it dropped into her palm full of mealworms. Another wild starling who settled in her backyard called her “Mommy” in the voice of her toddler son (and I was shocked that that’s what it took for her not to throw out its eggs from the nest box intended for another species). Oh, and the story about barn swallows who’ve traded barns for home-improvement stores and learned to hover in front of the infrared beam of the electric eye that opens the automatic doors to let themselves in and out. And I loved it how the author stopped buying chicken nuggets for her son, when she saw that even a turkey vulture won’t eat them. I’ve learned a great deal about different kinds of birds from this book. I also marveled at the author’s dedication in raising songbird nestlings. As she explains, there are far more facilities for the rehabilitation of baby raptors who only have to be fed once a day than baby songbirds who may have to be fed every twenty minutes, from dawn to dusk – and dawn happens early at the height of summer. Julie Zickefoose also said in an interview that eight years of writing and, perhaps, twenty of drawing went into this book – and it shows! I was not surprised to read that a number of Amazon reviewers were buying extra copies for Christmas gifts, even though it was published in March.more